Hidden Water in Your Products

According to the EPA, agricultural irrigation accounts for more than 142 billion gallons of fresh water per day. Photo: Flickr/Julien Harneis

By now, most of us are familiar with the usual water-saving tips: don’t leave water running unnecessarily, time your showers, install low-flow shower heads and resist the urge to unnecessarily water the lawn or wash the car.

You can also reuse greywater when appropriate (water from rinsing veggies can be used to water plants, for example), landscape with indigenous plants that don’t require more water than the location can provide and run the dishwasher with a full load.

But what about all of the water “hidden” in just about every product we buy? Hidden or virtual water is a relatively new term, developed by Professor John Anthony Allen, which explores the concept of the water needed to grow/feed, manufacture, and process the products we buy, as well as water used in industry in general.

Some everyday products, such as coffee and cotton, have an especially high hidden water content. By being mindful of your virtual water use, you can greatly reduce the total amount of water you use.

Calculate your waterprint

As with your carbon footprint, the first step toward reduction is finding out how much water you are using and becoming more aware of the amount of water necessary to create the products you consume. Check out the water footprint calculator at the Water Footprint Network in order to calculate your number.

If your footprint is high, you are in line with the national trend – the United States uses almost twice as much water as the United Kingdom – but there is plenty you can easily do to develop a new approach to how you use one of our most precious commodities.

Once you know your number, it is easy to reduce your waterprint by using only what you need, reusing and buying secondhand, reducing packaging, composting and recycling and striving to buy products with the lowest waterprint.

Reuse, reduce, recycle

Everyday products like cotton and paper have a significant water footprint. It takes about 2.5 gallons of water to produce one sheet of paper and about 713 gallons for a single cotton shirt.

While the amount of water embedded in most manufactured products is more difficult to calculate because industrial processes vary widely, it is important to keep in mind that all industrial products have a water footprint.

So when shopping, try to buy products only when necessary and look for those that have gone through the least processing in order to create the finished product. For necessities like clothing, start your search at clothing swaps and secondhand stores. Not only will you save water, you will probably save a significant amount of money too!

4 items you can recycle to save water

Recycling actually saves water, because the extraction and manufacturing of virgin raw materials into single-use packaging uses quite a bit of water. Recycling reduces the need for materials from virgin sources and therefore reduces water use. Here are some examples of how much water goes into the creation of some commonly-used products.

1. Paper
1,321 gallons for 500 sheets (Bonus: 7,000 gallons of water are saved when you recycle 1 ton)

2. Paint
13 gallons of water for 1 gallon of paint

3. Cotton T-shirt
400 gallons of water to grow the cotton needed for one shirt

4. Tires
More than 2,000 gallons for one tire

Buy only what you need and compost

Besides the fact that wasting food is wasting your money, as well as the energy needed to grow, ship, package and transport the food, it is also a huge waste of water.

As an example, consider that extra cup of coffee that you throw away after brewing a bit too much. One cup of coffee has a water footprint of approximately 37 gallons, and coffee accounts for about 2 percent of the total water used in crop production.

Depending on your addiction levels, you could save more than 100 gallons of water if you brewed and consumed only the exact amount of coffee you actually drink.

When you are done with your coffee grounds, reduce your water footprint further by buying in bulk and reusing the bag you use to carry your coffee beans to and from your home. Don’t forget to use a reusable mug instead of a paper cup with its own water footprint.

If you do find that you have food waste, compost it and create nutrient-rich soil, which you can use to grow your own food that won’t need to be processed and packaged – both of which require water.

While conserving those gallons with the shorter showers should not be overlooked, the incredible amount of water embedded in every product we use should offer us all further motivation to consume only what we need, to waste as little as possible and to be mindful about the amount of water in everything we buy.

Related articles
Help Solve the Water Crisis
Ford First Automaker to Join CDP Water Disclosure Project
Water Pollution Tops List of Global Eco Concerns

Recent Posts
Latest posts by Libuse Binder (see all)


  1. ” Paper
    1,321 gallons for 500 sheets (Bonus: 7,000 gallons of water are saved when you recycle 1 ton)”

    “Cotton T-shirt
    400 gallons of water to grow the cotton needed for one shirt” etc

    Is there any research in how much water has been reclaimed from some of this manufacturing that can be reused?

  2. I recently started using a small cloth towel instead of paper towels to dry my hands at the office. It’s a small change but will save quite a few paper towels over the course of a year (at least 750). Any hand towel will do, but Reusablebags.com has some cute ones that are just the right size.

  3. Excellent! Thanks Libuse for this very important head’s up. We are so wasteful, but we don’t “see” the waste. You bring it to our vision.

    I think the point was missed by Liz. I too advocate (and few actually put this out into the public – good on you again Libuse) that we DON’T buy another new thing! Use a “small cloth towel” that you get at a local Salvation Army or other re-seller. Buying a new small cloth – that has to travel via the mail to reach you (more lost energy) is against my religion: STOPrecycling.com

    In fact, why not buy an entire towel and cut it up for everyone in your office to use? Be an advocate!

    But thanks, Liz. You have the spirit, now just learn the Professional Methods for lowering your impact.


  4. Waterprint (http://itunes.apple.com/app/waterprint/id354889735?mt=8) is a one-of-a-kind iPhone application that calculates how much water is imbedded in your daily activities, including what you wear, eat and drink. This application even includes a Waterprint calculator that quickly and easily tells you how much water it takes to grow a banana, manufacture a Tshirt, or brush your teeth.

    This application is the first of its kind, and we will continue to add more items to our waterprint list and more detailed information regarding exactly how a water footprint is calculated.

    We’ve designed this application with a clear, easy -to-use interface. The application is simple to navigate, and at every step of the way we’ve provided the web links and other resources so that you can track down exactly where those waterprint totals come from and how you can reduce your own water footprint.

Leave a Comment